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Although soy was once thought of as "mystery meat" and recognized as a viable source of protein only by vegetarians, its many health benefits have led to increased popularity. With so many soy products now on the market, people are asking how all of the available choices stack up nutritionally.

Soybeans and soy products have been used for centuries in eastern Asia. As of March of 2007, Canada's Food Guide recommends that we eat meat alternatives often. Examples are legumes (beans, peas and lentils), nuts and seeds. Soy products come from the soy bean, which is a legume.

During the past 20 years, studies have been done all over the world to determine the health benefits of soy. It has higher-quality protein than other plant foods in that it has all nine essential amino acids. It's lower in saturated fat than most meats. It has mono-unsaturated fats and essential polyunsaturated fats, which are beneficial for heart health. Researchers have concluded that soy lowers cholesterol levels. It also has fibre as well as iron, which helps your body use oxygen.

Soy contains isoflavones - phytochemicals that act like estrogen in your body - which may be why some studies are suggesting soy reduces hot flashes.

Some studies show that soy is linked to a lower risk of developing cancer. The benefits may not be due to soy alone; there may be other lifestyle factors that account for the lower risk. Soy over a lifetime, starting in childhood or adolescence, seems to be most protective. The link between soy and breast cancer is not clear. If you have breast cancer or a family history of breast cancer, talk to your doctor before having soy foods. Research suggests you need to avoid soy powders and supplements.

There are many good reasons to start eating soy. Here are just a few ideas to get you started.

Soy Beans

Buy canned beans to save time. Rinse them to reduce salt and add to soups or casseroles.

Roasted Soy Nuts

Soy nuts are baked soybeans. When roasted in oil or by dry heat, their texture and flavour are similar to peanuts. Snack on plain or flavoured soy nuts or add them to salads, stir-fries or trail mixes.   Soy Nut Butter  This is suitable for people with peanut allergies (when it's not made in the same factory as peanut products). Spread in sandwiches or use for dip with celery or apple slices.

Soy Beverages

Soy drinks come in different flavors and can be used on cereal or in any recipe calling for milk. Use plain soy beverage in cream soups or sauces and use flavoured in puddings or shakes. Choose fortified soy beverage: most contain calcium and vitamin D.

Tofu

Tofu is soybean curd that is pressed into blocks with texture ranging from soft (called silken) to extra firm. Use tofu with other ingredients or marinate it since it doesn't have flavour on its own. Firm tofu can be sliced or cubed and added to stir fries, soups or stews, or crumbled for use in spaghetti sauces or lasagna. Silken tofu is great for dips, creamed soups, puddings or smoothies.

Texturized Vegetable Protein (TVP)

TVP is soy that has been dried and formed into small pieces. Mix with an equal amount of water or sodium-reduced broth and then use it in place of ground meat in pasta, meatloaf or chili.

Meat Substitutes

These foods are made from soy proteins and other ingredients mixed together to form products that look and taste like meat. You can buy soy-based burgers, ground meat, sliced deli meat, sausages, hot dogs, bacon, pepperoni or bacon bits. Deli slices can be used in sandwiches, casseroles or pizzas. Ground products can be used in sauces, chili, casseroles, lasagna and taco mix in place of ground meat. You may want to start by mixing half ground meat and half meat substitute.

Dairy Substitutes

Soy beverage is used to make products such as yogurt or cheese. Soy cheese is a solid product with a cheesy texture and is available in various flavours such as cheddar, mozzarella or sundried tomato. Eat as a snack or use it in cooking. Soy yogurt has a creamy texture and comes in various flavours. Eat it as a snack or use as a substitute for sour cream or cream cheese.

The bottom line is that soy is a lower-fat protein choice. Because it's low in saturated fat, using it in place of meat at least once a week will help you reach the food guide recommendation of having meat alternatives often.

Recipe featured in this article:

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